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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does the Minister have any concerns about head teachers and senior staff handing out penalty notices? Does he think that might conflict with their role in working closely with pupils and parents to re-integrate children?

Mr. Lewis: Liberal Democrats frequently lecture us about delegating to those at the sharp end—on the front line. We are giving education welfare officers, police officers and senior school staff the option of using fixed penalty notices if they feel that in some circumstances that is an appropriate way of getting the parents' co-operation in dealing with truancy. To deny head teachers that opportunity would be inappropriate. It is for head teachers to make a professional judgment as to whether to use that power.

Mr. Swayne : May I commend to the hon. Gentleman the idea of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that the benefits system could be used as a powerful coercive against antisocial behaviour in this context?

Mr. Lewis: I have great respect for the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in this regard. We have considered using benefits conditionality in some areas, and the debate will no doubt go on. As a society, we will have to consider the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities. In a context in which there has never been such a high level of investment in support for families, in preventive work and in education, it is not too much to ask that a parent fulfil the basic requirement of getting their child to school.

Where parents fail or are unwilling to co-operate, rather than where they are unable to co-operate, surely it is right that the Government make a statement and use the levers in their power to ensure that that situation is not allowed to continue. No one has the right to blight children's life chances and life choices. Although there must always be a balance between rights and responsibilities, and between family responsibility and state intervention, if parents are not willing to co-operate in the basic responsibility of getting their children to school, the Government have some responsibility.

Liz Blackman: On the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) that fixed penalty notices dished out by the school might break the trust between the parent and the school, does my hon. Friend agree that the school will have moved mountains to try to get the parents to co-operate and get their children to school, and the trust will already have been broken? The issuing of a fixed

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penalty notice may well be the start of a better relationship, rather than degrading the relationship further.

Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that some head teachers in some circumstances will make that judgment, and the Government believe that they have the right to do so. That belief is not confined to this policy area. Some political parties only ever talk about rights because that is popular in electoral terms, but they never talk about the responsibilities of citizenship. That is not the way to rebuild the kind of society that we seek to rebuild, from the kind of society we were left after 18 years of Tory rule.

It is important to acknowledge that some schools have worse attendance problems than others. That also applies to some LEAs. We are working intensively with 60 LEAs where attendance is significantly lower than one would expect. We are focusing on LEAs where there is no apparent explanation for the fact that attendance is so inferior to the average, and we are offering a tremendous amount of support.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): What will happen in the Bradford district, where many parents regard it as their right to take children back to the sub-continent for months on end? Will that be regarded as a cultural difference that we must tolerate, or will it be regarded as unfair to the children, so action should be taken?

Mr. Lewis: It is difficult for me to comment on all circumstances. I offer to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, which clearly has a direct impact on her constituency. If that blights the educational opportunities of many of her constituents in an unnecessary and unacceptable way, it is an issue that must be tackled. It cannot be shirked. I am willing to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how, together, we can tackle it.

The core of our attendance and behaviour programme is the behaviour improvement initiative, which provides intensive support for schools facing the greatest challenges. At present, the programme focuses on about 1,500 schools in 61 local education authority areas. Typically, a partnership would comprise four secondary schools and 20 primary schools. We offer them a menu of options to choose from in terms of intervening appropriately to improve attendance and behaviour in their particular environment and circumstances. Behaviour and education support teams, for example, bring together professionals from different backgrounds to work closely with schools on a day-to-day basis, instead of the situation whereby the social worker or other professional is at the other end of the phone and does not have a relationship with the school or direct responsibility for working with it.

We are extending learning support units, which provide in-school education for disruptive pupils outside mainstream classes and give head teachers the opportunity to withdraw young people from classes for a short period to work with them intensively, then to reintegrate them into class, rather than permanently to exclude them, with all the consequences that that brings.

Dr. Pugh: The Minister identified certain local education authorities that perform slightly worse than

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others. What features do those—in a sense—rogue authorities have in common? Is it something to do with their curriculum, application, council leadership or school leadership?

Mr. Lewis: I would not go so far as to describe them as rogue authorities; and given that one or two of them may be Liberal Democrat-run, it is a pretty dangerous label for the hon. Gentleman to attach to them. If one looks at socio-economic factors, for example, there is no objective reason why those authorities are having more difficulty than others in managing and improving attendance. We are focusing particularly on their record on attendance and giving them intensive support.

As well as the learning support units and the behaviour and education support teams, we are offering such schools additional learning mentors who can give pupils individual attention. One of the great success stories of this Government is that there are now far more adults working in a school environment, playing different roles and offering young people a far more individualised service. That will be the future of our education system as we go forward. We have to offer young people a far more personalised educational service.

We are basing police officers in schools where appropriate, not only to work with young people and teachers, but to improve relationships between schools and the wider community, including voluntary organisations and parents. That has been relatively successful.

Mr. Allen: In the context of police working in schools, will my hon. Friend commend the work that is being done by the drug abuse resistance education or DARE, programme in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, whereby police officers, who are normally retired, go into a school on 12 consecutive Fridays to teach the kids—by various means, including resisting peer pressure such as bullying—how to say no not only to drugs, but to smoking and drinking. That process also helps many of those children to make better educational advances as a result of the confidence that it gives them.

Mr. Lewis: I certainly pay tribute to the work of DARE. It is important to find opportunities to get role models into schools to work with young people and to establish a different relationship between the police and young people. That relationship is often based on misconceptions, ignorance and lack of contact. Bringing young people and police officers together in a more positive way has to be generally good for the fabric and cohesion of our communities.

We have made resources available for electronic registration systems and for enhanced pupil referral units, which enable us to support young people who are permanently excluded from school.

I am proud of the fact that we are the first Government seriously to attack poor attendance and ill discipline in our schools. To our critics, some of whom sit on the Opposition Benches, I say that are there are no magic wands, quick fix solutions or easy answers. We are seeking to achieve generational and cultural change: to restore values of good manners, civility, self-respect and respect for others; to raise aspirations in

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communities where education is not seen as the passport to personal fulfilment and success; to combine unprecedented rights to support and opportunities with non-negotiable responsibilities; and to undo the damage caused by the "no such thing as society" ideology that was applied by the Conservative party when it was in government.

I make no apologies for pursuing long-term sustainable improvements, but I can also point to some tangible evidence that our reforms and investment are delivering real progress. Attendance levels are at a record high. The percentage of time missed due to truancy is decreasing, and children are truanting for shorter periods. The fact that greater numbers of pupils are being identified as truanting is not necessarily bad news, because it means that instead of allowing young people to drift through the streets, unidentified by the system, we are ensuring that they are being identified: for the first time, we are seriously tackling that unauthorised absence. The more that one focuses on legitimacy in terms of absence and attendance, the more heads do not authorise certain absences in our school system that they used to authorise. We welcome that. However, this year the rate of unauthorised absence has gone down, if only marginally—I make no great claims for it, but it is important that it has gone down. Moreover, attendance is at a record high. If one talks to educationists and teachers, it is clear that the emphasis that the Government have placed on attendance has been very significant in beginning to shift the culture.

I do not claim that we have gone far enough—we still have a long way to go. However, this is not a simple issue. It is disingenuous for Opposition Members to attempt to roll up all the money that has been spent on behaviour, attendance, exclusions and preventive work and to say, "The Government have spent all this money, but there has not been a massive improvement in truancy." That completely distorts the purpose of that money, what it was used for, and the improvements that have been made.

I shall give some more examples of tangible improvements. Permanent exclusions are 25 per cent. lower then when we entered Government. In terms of behaviour improvement in secondary schools, fixed term exclusions were 11 per cent. lower in 2002–03 than in the previous year. For the first time ever, all but a handful of permanently excluded pupils are receiving a full-time education. Under the previous Government, permanently excluded pupils roamed the streets and were left to rot as the criminals of the future, with absolutely nothing being done about it. Those children's life chances were destroyed; and, worse than that, they became parents and passed it all on to the next generation.

We are proud of the fact that we are, for the first time, ensuring that all permanently excluded pupils have access to a full-time education, but the quality of that education is not what it should be. That is why the Government are now focusing not only on improving provision for young people who are permanently excluded, but on improving the quality of that provision. As there will always be some young people for whom education in the mainstream system does not work, permanent exclusion has to be a tool that is

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available to head teachers. Having made that difficult decision, however, we have a responsibility never to give up on those young people: if we do so, we will pay the price.

We now have more than 10,000 learning mentors working in schools giving individualised, personalised attention to pupils. There are 90 multi-agency teams in place and 40 more in the pipeline, bringing professionals together to work closely with schools. Key worker support has been given to 17,000 children at risk of exclusion, truancy or crime. Many of those young people have never had in their lives one adult who they can look up to and respect, and who is there for them. It is vital to take that key worker approach to some of the most difficult young people in our society. So there is an adult to whom those young people can relate. That person is also the professional who is responsible for making the system work for them. That is preferable to half a dozen or more agencies fishing in those young people's lives without making a great deal of difference.

As I said earlier, 100 police officers are based in schools and we intend to increase that figure to 200. Young people who are judged to be at the greatest risk of involvement in crime and antisocial behaviour are participating for the first time in positive activities in school holidays. If they are allowed to wander the streets during school holidays, we should not wonder at the increase in street crime and antisocial behaviour. Focusing on them and ensuring that they participate in positive activities in the holidays is therefore important.

We must put the debate on attendance and behaviour in a sensible context. In our most recent survey of stakeholders, 75 per cent. of teachers who responded said that pupil behaviour was generally good. More than 80 per cent. said that standards of behaviour are either being maintained or getting better. We therefore need to listen to the profession. For years, teachers said that they could not do their basic job of teaching because poor behaviour and ill discipline undermined their capacity to teach. It is important that teachers are acknowledging that things are getting better. They are not as good as they need to be but it is important that we base our assessment on the experiences and views of people who work in our classrooms daily.

The Government regard education throughout life as the route to a fair and successful society. Improving school attendance and behaviour is our mission because we know that that is crucial to standards in every school in every community. We know that our success will free resources that are currently spent on social and economic failure.

Generational change is never easy for politicians because there are few quick wins and no artificial four or five-year cycles. However, we will not be distracted from our mission. We believe that it is right for our country and central to our belief that there is such a thing as society.

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